Karaite Judaism is the original form of Judaism as shown throughout the Tanakh from the time of the Revelation beginning at Har Sinai. Karaites are a sect of Judaism that believes only in the authority of the Tanakh. Karaite Judaism truly began with the national revelation at Har Sinai. Those who followed God’s laws were at first called “Righteous.”1
Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right. [צַדִּיק]. (Shemot 23:8)2
It was really only in the ninth-century CE that the followers of God’s law began being called Yahadit Qara’it (קראית יהדות). At first, everyone who followed Torah were of one mind and one sect – that of the Yahadit Qara’it. Throughout Jewish history a variety of sects – such as the Sadducees, Boethusians, Ananites, and Pharisees – came into existence. It was in this atmosphere that the followers of Torah became known as the Yahadit Qara’it.1
At the end of the Biblical period – in the first century BCE – two opposing sects came into being in Yisrael. The Sadducees (also known as the Zadokites) followed only the Torah as sacred text. Josephus explains that the Sadducees “take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly.”3 The Pharisees taught of an “Oral Torah” that was added to the Written Torah. This sect taught “that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate.”3 Two additional sects arose during the Second Temple Period – the Essenes and the Boethusians. The Essenes was a sect of Judaism that added several books to the Torah. They taught “that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination.”3 The Boethusians were a sect like the Sadducees who only follow the Written Torah and rejected any additions to the mitzvot given to Moshe haNavi.1
In the early Middle-Ages the Pharisees continued to thrive and began calling themselves “Rabbis.” In the seventh-century the Muslims completely swept the Middle-East. They had no real interest in imposing Islam on the Jews and gave them a degree of autonomy under a system of Rosh Galut (גלות ראש), also known by the Greek name Exilarch. With the establishment of the Rosh Galut, the Rabbinates became a political power throughout the Middle-East. They began to force upon all Jews within the Empire the Rabbinate laws contained within the Talmud Bavli. There was fierce resistance to the Rabbinates by those who had never heard of the Talmud Bavli. One resistance leader, Abu Isa al-Isfahani, led an army of Jews against the Muslim government. However all attempts to cast off the Rabbinate rulers failed.1
In the eighth-century, Anan ben-David organized various non-Talmudic Jewish groups and lobbied the Caliphate to establish a second Rosh Galut for those Jews who refused to follow the man-made laws of the Talmud Bavli. The Muslims granted Anan and his followers the freedom to practice Judaism as their ancestors had practiced it. Anan was not a Karaite but he did reject the Talmud. His followers became known as Ananites and this group continued to exist until the tenth-century. Another group of Jews who continued to practice Judaism only according to the Tanakh became known as B’nei Miqra (Followers of Scripture). Their name was shorted to Kara’im (Scripturalists) which became transliterated to Karaites. This name is derived from the Hebrew word for the Tanakh – Miqra and its root Kara. The name Kara’im means “Scripturalists” and distinguished these Jews from the Rabbis who call themselves Rabanyin (Followers of the Rabbis) or Talmudiyin (Followers of the Talmud).1
Even though Karaites live and worship only according to the Tanakh, the Tanakh is not taken literally. Karaites believe that every text, including the Tanakh, needs some type of interpretation. However, Karaites believe that the interpretation of the Tanakh must be based upon the peshat (plain) meaning of the text as it would have been understood by the Yisraelites when it was given. It is up to each individual to learn Tanakh and ultimately decide on their own the correct interpretation. Of course, this interpretation must be based upon proof-texts from the Tanakh, the peshat meaning of the text, and the Hebrew grammar of the text.
Karaites do not accept the idea of an “Oral Law” or “Oral Torah.” They also do not believe or follow the teachings as set down in the Mishnah or Talmud. Karaites are known to study the Mishnah and Talmud as well as other Rabbinical writings but this does not mean that Karaites believe these books are divine writings or the rulings must be followed. Karaites believe that these Rabbinical writings can hold clues to help everyone understand the Tanakh and Jewish history and philosophy. These writings are simply used as commentary and nothing more. In addition, Karaites complete reject the Zohar, Tanya, and any other mystical teachings since they are completely anti-Torah.
Karaites do not accept the “New Testament” as scripture. There are unfortunately individuals and groups that are calling themselves “Karaites” but they actually follow Christian doctrines – just as Rabbinic Judaism is plagued by so-called “Messianic Judaism.” The New Testament is not considered divine nor is it considered scripture by Karaites. In addition, just like Rabbinic Judaism, Karaite Judaism also rejects the idea that Jesus was the messiah, prophet, part of a trinity, or God-incarnate.
Unlike Rabbinic Judaism that declares “Rosh Hashannah” to be the beginning of the year, Karaites follow the Tanakh and declare the beginning of the new year at the sign of the first new moon after the sighting of the Aviv (ripening of the barley) in Eretz Yisrael. The Karaites follow the mandates of the yomim tovim (holidays) as prescribed in the Tanakh which means that they are often followed differently than how the Rabbinates follow them. Two other major differences between Rabbinates and Karaites involve tefillin and mezuzot and familial descent. Karaites do not take the passages from Shemot and Devarim literally and as a result do not wear tefillin or place mezuzot upon their doors. Karaites, unlike Rabbinates, follow the Tanakh when it comes to determining familial descent. Karaites maintain that a child is born a Jew only if the father is a Jew – the opposite of Rabbinic Judaism. This is the tradition according to the Tanakh and is therefore the tradition amongst the Karaites.
Karaite Judaism is the original form of Judaism. The Torah was given to Moshe ha-Navi and the entire Tanakh is considered sacred text. Karaites believe that only the Tanakh must be consulted for the determination of how one is to live according to God’s will. There is no “Oral Law” and Rabbinical law is not valid. Karaites maintain the original path of following God’s laws.
1Gordon, Nehemia. “History of Karaism.” karaite-korner.org. World Karaite Movement, 3 April 2011, accessed 15 April 2012.
2Stein, David (ed.). JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999.
3Whiston, William (trans.). “The Works of Flavius Josephus.” (1737) 13:5:9.